Friday 7 July 2023

Imagination and seduction: Huw Wiggin in Rhapsody, music Debussy, Joseph Phibbs, Iain Farrington, Coates, Jennifer Watson, and Liszt

Rhapsody: Debussy, Joseph Phibbs, Iain Farrington, Coates, Jennifer Watson, Liszt; Huw Wiggin, Norik Ogawa; Orchid Classics

Rhapsody: Debussy, Joseph Phibbs, Iain Farrington, Coates, Jennifer Watson, Liszt; Huw Wiggin, Norik Ogawa; Orchid Classics

Pairing two major 20th-century works for the instrument with a trio of recent commissions, Huw Wiggin has created a wonderfully imaginative and seductive programme

Saxophonist Huw Wiggin's latest disc, Rhapsody on Orchid Classics, with pianist Noriko Ogawa features six works for saxophone and piano that all loosely come into the category of rhapsody. 

Wiggin has cast his net widely, the disc includes two major 20th-century works for saxophone, Debussy's only work for solo saxophone alongside Eric Coates' Saxo-Rhapsody, plus three contemporary pieces by Joseph Phibbs, Iain Farrington and Jennifer Watson, and an arrangement of Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2.

Commissioned in 1901 and premiered in 1919 in an orchestration by Jean Roger-Ducasse, Debussy's Rapsodie pour orchestra et saxophone had a difficult birth. Debussy accepted the commission mainly for financial gain and had difficulty completing the work. He never orchestrated it and it remains something of an orphan. Here, we hear it in a new piano version by Vincent David. It opens with the hauntingly seductive saxophone solo, and whatever difficulties Debussy might have had about the work, it is clear that he really catches the saxophone voice. Wiggin is seductive, with a lovely tone and line which he weaves sinuously. Then the tempo increases, and we get Spanish hints, but still the same seductive line. The piece is clearly about a lot of things, but in this performance it feels that much of the work is about seduction or sex!

Joseph Phibbs' Night Paths (Rhapsody for alto saxophone and piano) was commissioned by Wiggins and in it Phibbs says he has "always felt the saxophone to be a deeply expressive instrument, yet one tinged with feelings of solitude, even loneliness. These qualities, combined with its urban, nocturnal associations (the busker on a street corner, or in the underground), find expression in this single movement work..."

There are in fact five main sections, bleakly lonely at first with the saxophone feeling very alone (just a few piano chords), then we move to something more hauntingly lyrical with the piano's shimmering making it seem almost eerie. The music develops urgency and his a somewhat filmic character, becoming rather dramatic and exciting, from urban loneliness with have come to something else but after a climax, we return to the opening, lonely again, except the music gets more intense and ends with vivid vibrancy and surprise.

Iain Farrington's Paganini Patterns was written for Wiggin and Ogawa and the work isn't so much a rhapsody as taking rhapsody as its starting point, it is a three-section piece based on the 24th Caprice by the renowned virtuoso violinist Niccolò Paganini. The first movement wears its origins clearly, yet takes the music into wonderfully jazzy realms. This continues in the slower second movement where the atmosphere becomes more laid back and perhaps a bit sleazy. Then we return to up-tempo toe-tapping for the finale.

Eric Coates' Saxo-Rhapsody from 1936 deserves to be better known, and is one of the major works for saxophone from this era. I remember a friend who used to run the Edinburgh Light Orchestra used to aver that the rhapsody was one of Coates' best works.

From the first notes, you get the feel of the composer and like the Debussy, Coates has a very distinct view of the instrument. There is no sex here, no sleaze, barely a hint of the instrument's 20th-century jazz background, and instead Coates gives us his engaging classical voice. This is real rhapsody, the music in a single arc and it is sophisticated stuff, there are few of Coates' trademark hummable tunes. Wonderful stuff.

Jennifer Watson describes Rhapsody on an Echo Chamber as a reflection on isolation, particularly in areas of natural beauty, such as caves or forests. The first movement is free-flowing and yes rather rhapsodic with a sense of almost endless melody as the saxophone weaves its magic against a mobile piano part. The mood slows with the second movement, but the textures remain similar, a hauntingly evocative saxophone flowing endlessly over the piano. The tempo picks up again in the third section, though eventually the music unwinds leaving just the saxophone in mid-air.

During the 19th century, Hungarian music was best known in the rest of Europe because of the gypsy bands, who played their own versions of Hungarian folk music. Liszt paid tribute to this heritage in his Hungarian Rhapsodies, begun in 1840 and revised in the 1850s. Here, we hear Iain Farrington's arrangement of Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2, which brings convincing saxophone drama to the familiar piece.

This is a lovely disc, Wiggin's imaginative programming combines with his elegantly liquid saxophone tone and style, whilst he is ably partnered by Ogawa who flits with ease between the various styles required of her.

Claude Debussy (1862-1918), arr. Vincent David - Rapsodie pour orchestra et saxophone
Joseph Phibbs (born 1974) - Night Paths (Rhapsody for alto saxophone and piano)
Iain Farrington (born 1977) - Paganini Patterns
Eric Coates (1886-1957) - Saxo-Rhapsody
Jennifer Watson (born 1985) - Rhapsody on an Echo Chamber
Franz Liszt (1811-1886), arr. Iain Farrington - Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2
Huw Wiggin (saxophone)
Noriko Ogawa (piano)
Recorded at St. Paul’s Church, Knightsbridge, London on 22-24 August 2022

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